April 20, 2024

Behind the European agenda for submarine Internet cables – Euractiv

Underwater cables account for the majority of the world’s Internet traffic, but as concerns grow about malicious actors moving to cripple or interfere with Internet infrastructure, the European Union has several projects of its own underway, backed by dynamic hidden policies.

Undersea fiber optic cables facilitate 99% of the world’s Internet traffic, according to telecommunications research company TeleGeography, making them a crucial, if invisible, part of our society.

In recent years, the question of how these networks could be attacked to paralyze communications and information exchanges, as well as illegal eavesdropping, has been central to international tensions between the United States and China.

This geopolitical dimension of transcontinental cables is inevitably intertwined with commercial interests, since deploying Internet cables over thousands of kilometers is expensive and large technology companies have increasingly come into play with their own projects.

In Europe, ensuring the resilience of critical subsea infrastructure has been a sensitive issue since the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline last September. Since then, European Commissioner Thierry Breton has promoted a secure connectivity agenda that combines a diversification of Internet connections and satellite communications.

However, the way the EU executive has selected and designed such projects has irritated some European countries, which want to push their own agendas and ventures.

submarine cable pipeline

Global Gateway, the European strategy to finance international projects that compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, allocated around €30 billion to digital connectivity projects, such as underwater and terrestrial fiber optic cables, communication systems space-based insurance and data centers.

The majority of EU funding to third countries goes to Africa, where currently the main official project for EU-Africa connectivity is Medusa, connecting southern Europe with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia across the sea. Mediterranean.

According to a presentation the Commission made to national representatives in April, another project is being considered: the EurAfrica Gateway, which would extend from the Iberian Peninsula along the Atlantic coast of West Africa through the Gulf of Guinea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The intention is to connect underserved countries and build links with strategic partners in the region such as Nigeria, the most populous African country where the Commission promised to spend €820 million on digital projects.

Latin America and the Caribbean is another area of ​​interest. The initial plan is to expand the BELLA program, which includes EllaLink from Portugal to Brazil to Colombia and Peru, Caribbean islands such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic and even to Mexico via Central America.

Another proposal for which the EU would have funding available is Far North Fiber, an internet cable to connect Scandinavia to Japan via the Arctic to avoid major choke points such as the Suez Canal and the South China Sea, revealed by EURACTIV in last October.

The EU is already contemplating a possible extension of the project that would connect Japan with the Philippines, although there is no funding available for this part. Likewise, the EU considers that this Arctic cable fits with the Humboldt Cable from Japan to Chile via Australia.

Another unbudgeted proposal is the South Asia Connectivity, which will connect Taiwan to Thailand through Indonesia, preventing the South China Sea from being the center of military tension between Beijing and its neighbors.

The South Asia Connectivity would connect with the South Africa and Indo-Pacific route departing from Thailand with landing in India. Another EU project would connect India to the Medusa cable in the Mediterranean Sea, landing in Kenya.

Political dynamics

However, questions remain about how the European Commission plans these international projects and allocates funding.

“Global Gateway projects are designed, developed and implemented in close cooperation and consultation with partner countries. Infrastructure projects will be based on the needs and opportunities they identify for their local economies and communities, as well as the EU’s own strategic interests,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Another EU official told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity: “There is no justification for the investments. “Decision-making is neither fair nor transparent and is done behind closed doors.”

For example, it is not clear why the EurAfrica Portal would stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and not come full circle to South Africa, which would make commercial sense.

“Without a doubt, the lobby plays an important role,” acknowledged a second EU official.

In March 2021, the EU Council adopted a ministerial declaration on European data portals, which included a series of calls to action so that “new and secure cable infrastructures can benefit from sources of growth in the neighborhood.” Europe and the Western Balkans, the Arctic region and Africa. , South and Southeast Asia”.

While the declaration provided the political impetus for the Commission to prioritize the issue, in some EU capitals the Commission is pursuing its own agenda rather than the path outlined in the declaration.

A third EU official noted that the Commission is actively engaging with stakeholders to promote submarine cable projects. But while European companies such as telecoms operators and financial institutions are often interested, the involvement of Member States is limited.

In fact, many EU countries that are not strategically located or landlocked have little interest in the geopolitics of Internet cables. Member States that are committed, in most cases, are doing the same.

France, for example, has strong economic ties with the former colonies of West Africa and the overseas territories of the Indo-Pacific. Portugal is positioning itself as an international data center linking Europe with Latin America and West Africa.

Finland has vehemently advocated for the Arctic cable, in which the Finnish company Cinia is leading the way. So far, Helsinki has prevailed over the competing Stockholm-backed project called Polar Connect.

In other words, just as Europe’s increased attention to undersea infrastructure is a reaction to the bitter geopolitical context, deciding which geographic areas to prioritize is also an opaque mix of commercial interests and political dynamics.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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